Since the beginning of the year I’ve had an enormous luxury: Time. I’ve spent several months in contemplation, which has mainly consisted of meditation and learning about psychology, society and economics. A few months ago, I had undertaken a process called ego death and have since been reconstructing a more informed understanding of, well, to be frank, the nature of existence. The most apt phrase I use to describe conclusions reached is ‘revelations’. Forgive the biblical association but this period of ‘personal development’ has been more a process of ‘unknowing’ (~ ridding myself of social-conditioning) to reveal truths; as opposed to constructing knowledge to reach a conclusion. One such revelation left me in a brief period of cognitive dissonance until I decided on a career change: Life is unfair.
At university, I sometimes snuck into a friend’s philosophy lectures, one of which was introduced with the question “Is society a product of individuals or is the individual a product of society?” A question I have long since pondered. It is a complex dynamic interchange but one that changes throughout a person’s life course. Initially children passively inherit beliefs and their underlying values to make sense of the world. These are determined by immediate family and then, as one ages, further by peers and then communities. Of course these, themselves, have values in turn determined by society. Eventually as an individual matures, they forge a role in society and they themselves begin to have an influence back on society.
Humankind has, socially, evolved through the re-telling of stories, which have only been written as recent as just 5,000 years ago in our 200,000 year history . (Whether stories be fiction or non-fiction is arguably irrelevant – a theme discussed in Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures -2017). Society, i.e. culture, can be viewed in terms of narratives, which carry values. There is a constant flux of narratives in competition for dominance: Some narratives succeed and become the social norm, while others are marginalised. Perhaps those narratives today are not so much stories told around camp fires but repeated through news and media agencies. My formative years from the 80s through the 90s were in the context of a strong set of narratives – a period of time, which I personally think was characterised by Thatcherism.
There is no strong evidence that Thatcher said “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” The sentiment does, however, summarise Thatcherism, which was about materialism, the acquisition of personal financial wealth and fundamentally individualism. Western culture is very individualistic – especially in contrast to more collectivist cultures like Japan with its strict set of social norms (that can even ostracise difference). The assumption underlying capitalism and individualism is that ‘life is fair’: One is responsible for one’s own success in life. However the implication then has to be that conversely one is responsible for one’s own ‘failures’. Other cultures, such as in China, do however acknowledge the strong role that chance plays in one’s life – demonstrated by their plethora symbols and rituals bestowing luck on others.
It’s admittedly not a ground-breaking revelation to realise that one’s life is a combination of luck and perhaps an individual’s own contribution e.g. perseverance or good financial decisions. My revelation, however, was that almost all of one’s life’s journey is determined by ‘luck’. This ‘luck’ is the ‘luck of the draw’ – to whom one is born, where and when. You don’t determine which family you were born to or, indeed, if even you have a family at all (UNICEF estimate 140 million orphans in the world). One doesn’t determine the value system within one’s birth family and thereby the value system they inherit. One doesn’t determine the schools or opportunities for travel that one has access to. Even one’s own physical health is predominantly determined by factors outside of their control – genetics and environment (e.g. those living in cities are more likely to develop asthma).
I have to admit then that my life’s course is not so much a result of my conscious decision making nor even an underlying subconscious value system inherited; but perhaps just luck. Even without such a philosophical view of choice and determination, I can think about every change in my life and recognise how chance played a part. I’d stumbled upon my last job by the sheer chance meeting of a director of a client-business who had a manager about to resign. A cigarette-break outside, a pitch of my credentials and a few numbers thrown about resulted in me landing a role that saw me double my earnings practically overnight. I went from a a disposable income of £50 per month in my twenties to £1,000 a month, a company car and free fuel for private use. My life was luxury – I spent my evenings in pursuit of leisure: fine dining, cooking, skiing, hiking and I travelled around the country and abroad as much as possible. Okay, so I work, ergo I am still a ‘slave to the system’ but even at work, as a senior manager, I control my day which means I’m less likely to have coronary heart disease.
When I first joined the business, it was struggling in the UK’s post- 2008 financial crisis economy as were so many other businesses and individuals. I’ve personally not been affected, not in the least. I lived in Godalming, a lovely small town in Surrey and I just haven’t been exposed to poverty day to day. I am aware of austerity and universal credit problems on the news, especially in the area of the country I had grown up in but it was all just ‘news on the TV’. Occasionally I’ve ventured to places where poverty exists such as Hayes or Croydon in London but only to business premises, hotels and shops. I hadn’t really ‘sees’ the struggles people endure.
Well, my period of contemplation has somehow awoken me to the reality of things. Suddenly I see strife everywhere, I can’t ignore it. Every news story is no longer a statistic or some tragedy that eliciting a modicum of my sympathy; but a heart-wrenching episode of human tragedy. I think back on memories with a different perspective. I remember ribbing a lady at work a few years back for buying Christmas gifts in October (because I’m perpetually horrified by how large retail business exploits festivities to sell people crap, earlier and earlier). She retorted that I probably just buy gifts for everyone from Amazon a few days before Christmas, with Prime delivery – I confirmed this. She explained how as a low-wage single Mum, she had to plan well in advance of Christmas to maximise her budget for food and and presents. I just hadn’t contemplated that reason. Alright, it’s not poverty and arguably self-inflicted (to place so much emphasis on Christmas) but I just hadn’t thought about the ‘suffering’ of others to be honest. Not because I ‘didn’t care’, I did, but I think I just didn’t notice or had somehow blinkered it out for convenience.
I used to frequent the Morrisons in Croydon (excellent salad bar) and I would regularly dismiss the assistant’s offer of buying saving stamps. One day I did the ‘due diligence’ and enquired as to the advantage. The proposal is that I would buy £1’s worth of stamps and would spend those stamps when I needed to. There was no interest to be earned though. Failing to explain the value-proposition, I became a little annoyed: “If I’m not earning any financial benefit to buying the stamps, I really don’t get what the advantage is!” The assistant explained that it helps people manage a budget so they can save for Christmas throughout the year. What!? This made no sense to me. If I was that concerned about saving for Christmas, then I would just designate part of my funds for that purpose – or even just put cash in a jar. Alas, a friend explained to me that some people just simply aren’t able to manage their money and need a service like this to ensure they have funds available later. How privileged I began to realise my life is – not because I had the funds available but because I could manager funds (the latter determining the former). Managing money is just a matter of routine for me – once a month I download bank balances, forecast my expenditure and account for large expenses and update a balance sheet of assets.
In the pursuit of my own financial freedom, had I put blinkers on to the reality of the world around me? Had I suppressed human empathy because it was inconvenient toward achieving my own goals? Recently, we my girlfriend and I were walking into town to meet friends at a local gastro pub for the evening. I’d watched We need to talk about Kevin and we were discussing the effects of post-natal depression and how it could even result in subsequent criminal behaviour. Literally two minutes later we walked past a foreign lady with a pushchair just stood on the opposite side of the road crying. It’s like the Universe had granted me an opportunity (as it always does for each of us to practise our beliefs; when we notice) but my girlfriend had dissuaded me from approaching her. I will never ever forget the look of panic and need for help behind those teary eyes. No, instead, the lesson I learned was how readily I could inhibit my innate human desire to help others because of its inconvenience to pursuing my own goals – something I vow (perhaps in vain?) to never do again.
I hate to use the prevalent social media cliché that seems to mark our times but in the space of a few months, I ‘woke up’. It really does seem like I woke up from a dream. I got in touch with my deepest desires and realised they were far simpler than I had ever previously acknowledge – to love and to be loved. Perhaps I had suppressed these desires since childhood? Why? Fear and the subsequent pursuit of material security seems plausible – reinforced by social conditioning. Now after some contemplation, I cannot deny my desires but the question is how to satiate said desires? It’s perhaps not so much in my nature to adorn linen clothes and hand out hugs and flowers (well, outside of Stonehenge and festivals).
‘Luck of the draw’ determines birth but social mobility does exist – albeit not in anyway close to the narrative our society maintains. Opportunities do present to individuals and we all make choices that affect our life course. Choices can be seemingly minor or major and it is typically only in retrospect that we ascertain the importance those choices had on our lives. The questions then comes, how can one maximise the probability of successful choices and, hopefully, without regret.
I had spent a period of my life playing Poker; when it became a craze in the early 2000s. Poker is analogous to life. You start of with the ‘luck of the draw’: You have no control of the cards you are dealt and you cannot change them. You sometimes need to ‘fake until you make it’ (bluff), play the odds (make calculated decisions), anticipate the other players decisions but to succeed in the long-term, you need to have a game plan, a strategy. (The analogy even extends to capitalist economics that while you are winning, someone else is losing and everybody loses apart from the house a.k.a the banking corporations). The question becomes what determines a game plan: How can one make good (strategic) decisions?
An animal can make a decision. Decisions aren’t difficult but what makes a good decision, is an informed decision. What makes an informed decision? Education. Wow. Perhaps there was something in the famous statement made over two decades ago by, who would become, our Nation’s prime minister:
Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people.Tony Blair, 1996
Education is the greatest gift one can receive (or develop themselves). Over the last few months I have re-kindled my spirit, my enthusiasm and it’s all because I’ve had the freedom to learn. If life is about growth and development (another revelation I uncovered), then learning (aka education) is critical. Ironically, it took a process of unknowing that brought this revelation to me but I draw a distinction between education and social-conditioning. I hadn’t thought about education as an occupation before because I had always associated education with industrialisation – the 70s Pink Floyd depiction of education – feeding worker bees into factories. I didn’t enjoy school particularly because of the regime but I loved learning – the majority of which I undertook myself. Although I will acknowledge that it was school (particularly my primary school) that had helped kindled this love of learning.
I believe education, as the summation of human knowledge and skills to date, is the largest determinant of somebody’s quality of life. There are countless example across the world of the correlation of education to quality of life. Education not only dispels the horrors of practices like female genital mutilation, or the (less extreme) social attitudes of sexism or corruption; but it empowers people. Of course, then a cynic would realise that society does not want an educated public. Will someone with education be so willing to venture down a mine-shaft? Will someone with education be willing to eat cheap food or contribute to ecological problems with the mindless procurement of goods that drives our consumer-economy?
I have benefited enormously from an education – I can think for myself. I can think about the way I think as meta-analysis. I can reason. Perhaps, though, as predicted by the Dunning Kruger effect, I just hadn’t acknowledged how educated I am; I took it for granted and assumed it was the norm. Perhaps it’s reason through social-economic analysis, perhaps its a natural desire with age to pass on skills/knowledge to a younger generation, perhaps it’s just a human desire to empower, perhaps it’s a combination: I don’t know, but I want to help educate others. I’m not sure who and how. I have some particular skills – outdoors/bushcraft, IT, Business, Finance/Maths. I want to help bring education to those who have limited opportunities and hope. Perhaps bring alternatives to people who, like myself, had ‘normalised’ their circumstances – only their view is somewhat devoid of aspiration.
Although I had been vaguely toying with he idea of teaching for a year or so but been put off my the low wages, it is only now that perhaps finances permit me and the motivation is there that I may be able to craft a contribution to this world where I can make a pragmatic difference to the lives of others. Perhaps the provision of education is the means by which I can share a little love in this world. At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to write the theme tune to a Romcom, my reasoning is that a good sign of love is that it empowers. If education empowers, then perhaps education is a form of love within the formal structures that make our modern society.